Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was revolutionary in its time; written just over 200 years ago by an 18-year-old, it set the parameters for the horror genre. It continues to shock even now, remaining a cultural reference that is immediately recognisable to all. To celebrate the bicentenary of its initial conception, last year Blackeyed Theatre Company débuted their new production (adapted by John Ginman) and its tour has now reached Greenwich Theatre.
Beginning on Robert Walton’s ship that’s bound for the North Pole, we encounter an exhausted and delirious Victor Frankenstein – he’s taken on board and recounts his tale. Growing up in Geneva, he shows an aptitude and enthusiasm for the sciences, eventually heading to Ingolstadt to become a student. It is there that his fascination with the philosopher’s stone and the mystery of life really takes hold, culminating in the ‘birth’ of his creature. Frankenstein flees in terror and disgust, accidentally setting into motion a chain of events that leads him back to the present and Walton’s ship.
Unlike many adaptations (for stage and screen), this version allows for much more of a focus on Frankenstein’s background – attempting to quash the ‘mad scientist’ label that he so often is saddled with. At the same time, as it is him telling the story you are still able to question whether or not he is giving the whole truth. There is far less focus on the creature than the typical horror film, and when he is involved there are some quite sympathetic moments – as well as the undeniably horrifying ones. This production is remarkably faithful to the intentions of the source text, even with the loss of some characters and scenes in order for it to specifically work for this company. It is refreshing and daring to have multiple layers of storytelling; a design that works to great effect.
Ron McAllister has created something of a percussive soundscape to accompany the action onstage. There is something about the primal nature of the drums and other related instruments that fits perfectly with this story; drums mimic the heartbeat, your pulse quickens, the tension rises. It’s incredible how accurate the storm and sea effects are, especially considering the cast are simply making innovative use of cymbals and other similar percussion.
The set is simply the near wreck of Robert Walton’s ship, that is cleverly manipulated to act as different locations within the story. This straightforward approach lends itself ideally to the concept of a story within a story – a good storyteller conjures up images in your mind, so extensive visuals aren’t as necessary.
Interestingly, the Creature is portrayed by a bunraku-style puppet (designed by Yvonne Stone). This means its appearance can be more closely linked to that in the novel: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath… his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set…” It really isn’t a pleasant thing to look at, yet it is strangely alluring to watch. The cast handle it expertly – thanks to this and its size you really do forget that it isn’t a living thing itself.
Members of the small cast take it in turns to expertly play the instruments (overseen by musical director Ellie Verkerk) and operate the puppet in between portraying several different characters.
Max Gallagher provides some light relief thanks to his natural comic delivery, as well as providing some moving moments. Ben Warwick captures the agonies and passions of Victor Frankenstein from the off, providing real insight into the mind of the tortured genius.
My verdict? Theatrical storytelling at its finest, bringing fresh life to a 200-year-old tale – the Modern Prometheus with a modern relevance.